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Understanding the Art of Poetry

Understanding the Art of Poetry

To be a great poet, you have to think like a great poet. There are reasons why Frost is so well known and why his poetry will be studied for generations to come, just as there are reasons why some poets that are around today will never be forgotten because they'll never be known.

Great poetry is not the ability to string together flowery phrases, or to say something so nonsensical that it sounds poetic and intelligent only to the ignorant. Great poetry can be understood by anyone who reads it. And writing great poetry means having the ability to write about the ordinary in a way that's never been stated before.

Introduction to Poetry

Poetry is an art form that is older than literature, itself, and dates back to ancient times. It is used as a form of communication, a way to tell a story, and a way to express emotion.

However, it's important to start out by discussing what poetry is not. There's a common misconception, especially since the boom of the Internet, that poetry is a form of self expression that is void of any rules or form. While it's true that a poem can be a very beautiful means of expression, it is not true that there aren't any forms or rules to it. There are devices and techniques that set poetry apart from other forms of literature, and it's applying those things to your own writing that will determine how great a poet you are.

To be able to write good poetry, you have to understand what comprises good poetry. You have to know the forms, devices, and rules, as we said before, but you also have to be able to recognize the art of a quality poem, as opposed to regular writing broken up into poetry form. The only way to really be able to do that is to read the works of the great and notable poets, then be able to objectively compare it to your own and learn from it.
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A Brief History of Poetry

In modern times, and especially in our culture, we tend to think of poetry as the expression of emotion. How can we not, when poetry lines the inside of every greeting card, when it's something romantic that we write for a loved one, and when it's so lyrical that it brings out our emotions or sticks in our heads for a long time to come.
But the truth is, the original meaning and use for poetry had nothing to do with emotion. Poetry dates back to prehistoric times and out-dates literacy itself. The oldest surviving poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in 3000 BC on clay tablets.

When it originated, poetry was used as a form of record keeping. Ancient societies wrote poems to record cultural events, laws, and to tell stories (epic poetry). The rhythm, beat, and rhyme of poetry made things easy to memorize and aided in accurate oral transmission.

Think about it. If someone asked you to memorize the entire Constitution and the Bill of Rights word for word, you would probably shudder. However, if they rhymed or had a rhythm, memorization would be easier, and you'd be less likely to fumble on recitation.

The Definition of Poetry

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking poetry is simply a form where they can express their emotions. They think of poetry as romantic, sad, tragic, and for the in-love or heartbroken. And they write poetry as they would a song with a lot of emotion behind it, but very little imagery.
When you sit down to write a poem, you're not supposed to simply tell the reader all about the emotions you're experiencing. You're supposed to show the reader those emotions through imagery, meaning, sound, or rhythmic language. It's fine if you want to write a poem about your new love or a broken heart. But to be considered poetry, it must contain imagery and let the reader experience what you're feeling.
Poetic Form

While there are several forms of written poetry you can use, there are a few basic components and terms that are familiar to most poetry you will read. Whenever you read a story, you know the story will contain whole sentences. From there, the sentences are divided into lines. The length of those lines are determined by the margins set for the page, with a new line only beginning when the words reach the right margin. Then, the sentences and lines are broken up into paragraphs. Paragraphs make long text easier to read and, oftentimes, a new paragraph means a new thought, subject, or direction. Poetry is different.
The length of your lines in poetry is determined by how you want your poem to be read. The end of a line is where you want the reader to take a pause, or can even be used to emphasize a phrase or word. Punctuation does not have to be used at the end of a line, as with text. Instead, you can use an enjambment, or allow one sentence or phrase to run over into another line without using punctuation, as long as the words in the two lines are closely related.

You can write: The girl went to the store

With lightning at her heels.

But you couldn't write: The girl went to the store

The boy went to the dentist.

In the first example, the words in the two lines are closely related because they both talk about the girl. It is a correct use of enjambment. The second example features two lines that are unrelated. Using an enjambment here would be incorrect. Instead, you'd need some form of punctuation.

Unlike text, where long passages are broken up into paragraphs, poetry uses stanzas. A stanza is equal to a verse. It can be defined as a group of lines whose pattern repeats throughout the poem. Think of a stanza as a "paragraph within a poem"-- each stanza is divided by a space.

Irony and Tone

The biggest mistake you can make as a poet is to believe that a poem's purpose is to show emotion or convey a thought. A story can convey emotion or show thought, as can a letter, essay, or any other piece of writing. If you only use poetry as a vehicle to write down emotional lines, then divide them up into poetic form, you're missing the most important element and you're not writing poetry.


A big part of what sets poetry apart from other forms of writing is that it never says anything directly. The best poems we enjoy make us see things in a different way, using the many figures of speech.


Figures of speech are the poet's toolbox. Using figures of speech, a poet can take the most ordinary line -- something you've heard said 15 billion times -- and say it in a way that catches your mind and kick starts your imagination in a way you never thought possible. The moon just doesn't shine in a poem. It promises night the light of day.


That's what makes poetry so beautiful and so beholden to so many. It's not the emotion conveyed in a poem, or the idea revealed -- it's the way everything is written and worded. Indeed, poetry is the most beautiful form of written expression that exists, or will ever exist.


But to learn how to write poetry and, much more importantly, to write poetically, it's important to study the figures of speech used in poetry. You must learn how the great poets used the figures of speech to write their poetry, then learn how to apply it to your own.



Irony can be hard to discuss and even comprehend, because it, as a term, is misused so often in today's society. It's important to remember that, in literature and poetry, irony's purpose is to give two meanings to something that is being said: a literal meaning and another, underlying meaning.


Below is an example of irony:


  • What is said : "Oh, I simply hate those shoes! Can I borrow them sometime?"


  • What is meant : "I love those shoes! Can I borrow them sometime?"


In the example above, the word simply is packed with irony because it both belittles the shoes, but also builds up the narrator's love for them. The phrase, "Oh, I simply hate those shoes," followed by, "Can I borrow them sometime," is the perfect example of irony, because there are two meanings there: the literal and the underlying. Even though the reader reads how much the narrator hates the shoes (the literal meaning of the phrase), the reader can also discern that the narrator really meant that he/she loved them (underlying meaning).


But in today's society, irony is misused in a way that's probably very familiar to you. Here's an example:


"The race car driver was arrested for speeding."


Isn't that ironic? Isn't it ironic that a race car driver received a speeding ticket? People often misuse the term irony to wryly connect events such as in the example above. However, this is not irony.


Irony disguises the real meaning in the phrasing of another. Let's take a look at some poems that use irony.


An Excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

In this short excerpt, Coleridge talks about water, water everywhere, but he reveals in the last line that there isn't any water, not even a drop to drink. He uses irony to show his readers that there isn't any water, by saying that water is everywhere. While he uses a literal meaning throughout the poem, in the last line he reveals the underlying meaning.


How to Detect Irony in Poetry

Dramatic irony, such as irony in a theatrical production, can be easy to detect by simply listening to the tone of the speaker. When you're reading poetry, however, it can be much more difficult to spot.


Whenever a poet uses irony in a poem, there are clues that tell you the literal meaning of the phrase is not actually the one intended. You have to look for these clues to be able to not only detect the irony, but understand it and the intentional meaning of the poem. The same holds true for when you write a poem and use irony: You must leave clues so your reader knows that the literal meaning is not the one that you intend.




Tone is the proof that, in poetry, it's not what you say, but how you say it. As we've discussed, poetry is about the ordinary: the things we recognize, experiences, senses, and even emotion. But it's the way of writing it so that even the ordinary is extraordinary, that makes it poetry.


The extraordinary way that you describe a bird in flight, for example, will set the tone of your poem. To write about the gracefulness of flight, describing it in a way that the reader feels the majesty and beauty, will set a tone of awe and beauty. But to write about a bird in flight heading toward a glass window, will set the tone of tragedy.


The tone of any poem is the mood it seeks to create within the reader. As with irony, you can pick out clues within a poem that let you know how you should feel as you read it.


You can use meter, repetition, imagery, and any number of other devices to create the tone of a poem. It's important for you to realize that every element of your poem will contribute to its tone. The tone is not a separate entity of any other device or figure of speech you use in poetry; it is a part of it. It's not like irony, whereas, if you use irony in one line, you might use imagery in the next. Instead, the tone is the product of every device and figure of speech you use, the words you use, and how you write your poem. You will take the ordinary and make it extraordinary and introduce the reader to moods and emotions just through your words.

The tone in your poetry will be achieved by the words you use and how you arrange them. It will even be determined by such little things as where you place your line breaks. Line breaks can show pauses in the narrator's voice, and those pauses can help to set the tone of your poem.


Using Line Breaks to Create Tone


Use line breaks:

· To emphasize a word that carries meaning or emotion by placing it at the end of the line.

· To call attention to a particular word or the importance of a particular phrase.


Using the last stanza of Frost's poem as an example:


It is specked with grime as if

Small print overspread it.

The news of a day I've forgotten --

If I ever read it.



If he'd have made the lines longer, so that he could combine the last line with the one above, it would have made the entire poem bookish and rather ordinary.


It is specked with grime as if small print overspread it.
The news of a day I've forgotten if I ever read it.


With the line breaks changed, the poem has a lyrical feel to it, but it no longer has the same tone. You can no longer hear his voice get softer or the "chuckle" or "sigh" by the narrator at the end. One simple line break can change the whole tone of a poem.


Using Words to Create Tone

How we word phrases and sentences in a poem also determines the mood. The tone of a poem is what we achieve when we say ordinary things in an extraordinary way.


Earlier in this section, when discussing irony, we used these two examples:


  • What is said : "Oh, I simply hate those shoes! Can I borrow them sometime?"


  • What is meant : "I love those shoes! Can I borrow them sometime?"


Let's look at both of these examples written as parts of a poem.


  • What is said: Oh, I simply hate those shoes!

Can I borrow them sometime?


  • What is meant: I love those shoes!

Can I borrow them sometime?


Can you differentiate the difference in tone between the two examples? In the first, by using irony, we give the lines a more playful, teasing feel. We can almost picture the grin on the narrator's face as the "hate" for the shoes is stated. By writing the obvious as the not-so-obvious, we achieve tone. We wrote about our like for the shoes (an ordinary thing) in an extraordinary way.


But in the second example, the obvious is stated as the obvious. The tone then just becomes matter of fact. The narrator likes the shoes and wants to borrow them sometime. So what? The tone is just one of fact. While the reader learns the narrator likes the shoes, there isn't any emotion or feeling conveyed, as with the first example.


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